My husband Gary likes to watch this television series that explains complex ideas in about 20 minutes. (He finds it perfect for viewing while folding laundry or waiting for me to emerge after church after I say that I will be out “in a minute”). Recently, he directed me to an episode about brainwashing. I was only vaguely interested until the narrator started talking about what happens in our brain when someone pushes our “sacred values” button. Many of you may know that judgement and the ability to anticipate the consequences of our actions happens in the frontal lobes of our brain, but you may not know that the specific tasks related to higher order thinking are performed by different areas of the prefrontal cortex. Sacred Values are the ideas we hold most dear – like God, family and country – and it turns out that when someone makes a strong connection to one of those beliefs the area of our brain that regulates self-control and good judgment goes kind of dark, handing more power to the area that deals with social judgment. It also triggers another area of the brain – the one associated with rigid enforcement of rules for their own sake - to light up. This happens most often when someone’s identity is primarily dependent on belonging to a certain group.
The need to belong is one of our oldest human instincts. It’s actually a survival mechanism - so it’s not that surprising to find out that if we think we need to believe something to continue to be part of a group – even if it doesn’t make logical sense - we will stubbornly continue to do so -even if it kills us.
This may explain why it sometimes seems so difficult to talk to people about our sacred values who have opinions that are different from ours. It’s not simply that we disagree; it’s like we live in different realities. Tragically, this is often the case among those of us who call ourselves “Christians.” As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said this past Thursday, “It never occurred to me in my 68 years of living that it would be necessary for me to stand up in front of the people of God and declare that it is necessary to reclaim Epiphany, [but]… we who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ must reclaim Epiphany… [We must] reclaim Christianity itself]… We must reclaim it by choosing the light.”
It is not a happy or easy thing to identify differences with those who should be our closest of kin, but it is a greater evil to fail to acknowledge sin in our midst – and those of you who know me are familiar with my characterization of sin as separation from God and from one another. Our separation from our cousins is a sin we share with them and one of which we must repent. But which of us is causing our separation – and of what do we need to repent? Jesus instructed us to follow his way - and the first of his commands was to love our neighbor – and not stand in judgment of others. Yet, this is the same savior who stood firmly on the side of the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the poor, and the excluded. If we believe that those with whom we disagree are committing cruelties and injustices, would not our Lord want us to stand against them? How do we know that our reality is the right one – the one rooted in the teachings and example of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Whose baptism do we choose?
It is a question that the followers of John the Baptist had to ask themselves when they first encountered Jesus. They lived in dangerous and fearful times. John was a charismatic and compelling preacher -and there were those who believed that he might be the Messiah, the one who was promised, who would save the Jews from oppression and hardship. They knew from their scriptures that God was a powerful God, who would give strength to the people – and John fearlessly spoke truth to authority, gathering large numbers to their cause, and giving them hope that they could change and perhaps even rule over their oppressors.
The desire for a savior who will deliver us simply by removing our enemies is a very old, very human, and inexhaustible idea. As recently as ten years ago, evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll described Jesus as, “a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed,” noting, “That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up." We want the person we follow to be the biggest and strongest leader for one simple reason: fear. If it is one of our most basic instincts to belong to a group, then it follows that we would want to join up with the most powerful faction out there. From a self-preservation standpoint, it is perfectly natural that people who had been listening to John – and some of those who live alongside us in the 21st century – would want to be on the right side – the safe side- when the wheat and the chaff were separated. If you are fearful and want to be part of the big crowd, the one who makes the most noise and is the most likely to disrupt the earthly powers, that’s the way to go.
Except that’s not what John said. He suggested that there was a different kind of power, a power that came directly from God and was embodied in Jesus and the community that would follow his way. He said that the real power was the power of love. During the season of Advent, we talked a lot about preparation, about getting ready for Jesus’s arrival in the world, and one of the stories we heard was about the birth of John the Baptist and how it would be John’s role to help prepare the world for Jesus’s message. In today’s gospel we get to see this play out. John’s baptism is one of repentance. He baptizes people with water – literally washing them clean of their sins so that they are ready to receive the more powerful – and more complicated gift of the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism is not unimportant, but it is incomplete. It is incomplete because those who receive it are there for themselves. They are there to be sorted into the “saved” column – not to be saved, but to be made safe.
One of the changes that was made in the liturgical reform movement of The Episcopal Church that brought about the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was to discourage private baptism. Baptism, we believe, is properly performed in public, because it is a sacrament of belonging. It is a sacrament of community. And that community is inclusive. Rather than setting us aside to be separated and saved from the fire, the Holy Spirit that is present and rests on us as result of Jesus’s baptism is a fire – a holy fire that burns away our differences and forges unity and kinship, blowing everywhere, and lighting the entire world on fire. It is not in any way, shape, or form safe. It is not about each of us. It is about all of us.
To see baptism as entry into a club, as way of belonging, is to see it as a one-time, static thing - but membership in the community of Christ is active and continuous. We may only have the water poured on our heads once, but the Holy Spirit comes and goes repeatedly, alternately burning and soothing us with her presence, but always reminding us that “Christian” is not just one of a group of values. It is an identity. It is who we are. God calls us each by name and we are God’s. When you encounter those who fear, do not argue with them. Instead, invite them into this community, this baptism, this uniting, inclusive, courageous, loving, blessed, place of belonging. God knows their names too. AMEN.
Quoted in, Anthony B. Robinson (February 24, 2010), “The anti-Mark Driscoll: resisting cage-fighter Jesus.” https://crosscut.com/2010/02/the-antimark-driscoll-resisting-cagefighter-jesus